What is the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is landmark federal legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Enacted on July 2, 1964, with the signature of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 granted equal access to employment, schools and public spaces. 

Understanding the Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is widely considered one of the greatest achievements of the civil rights movement. By the early 1960s, events in the South—including the harsh treatment of peaceful protestors by the police and the murders of civil rights activists—brought national attention to the gulf between blacks and whites.

President John F. Kennedy responded by calling for a meaningful civil rights bill in 1963, but his efforts were filibustered in the Senate. After his assassination that year, his successor Lyndon B. Johnson took up the cause. With the support of activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Johnson was able to get a bill passed in the House and Senate in 1964.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act is not to be confused with the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which bolstered the earlier legislation by, among other provisions, allowing damages for victims of intentional employment discrimination.

Civil Rights Act of 1964: Titles

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is organized into 11 sections (titles). They are:

Title I

Prohibits unequal application of voter registration requirements. Requirements such as literacy tests had been used to suppress black voters, other minorities and poor whites. These were not outlawed, the law stipulated that any qualification tests had to be applied to every voter. Qualifications other than citizenship were outlawed a year later.

Title II

Outlaws discrimination based on color, race, religion or national origin in restaurants, theaters, hotels and motels, as well as all other public accommodations involved in interstate commerce. Private clubs are exempt.

Title III

Prohibits state and local governments from denying access to public property and facilities based on color, race, religion or national origin.

Title IV

Provides the basis for the desegregation of public schools.

Title V

Provided for the expansion of the Civil Rights Commission that was established by the earlier Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Title VI

 Prohibits discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funds under penalty of losing such funding.

On June 15, 2020, in a 6-3 ruling in Bostock vs. Clayton County, Georgia, the Supreme Court determined that protections against discrimination by sex in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protect LGBTQ workers. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who wrote the opinion, stated: “Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

Title VII

Addresses equal employment opportunities by prohibiting discrimination by covered employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. One of the most far-reaching sections under the act. For more, see Title 42, Chapter 21, Subchapter VI of the U.S. Code.

Title VIII

Required compilation of voter-registration and voting data in specific areas.

Title IX

Facilitates the movement of civil rights cases from state courts to federal courts. 

Title X

Created the Community Relations Service that would assist in disputes involving discrimination claims.

Title XI 

Affords defendants accused of criminal contempt under the act the right to a trial by jury. Also sets penalties.

Civil Rights Act of 1964: Long Title

The Act's long title is as follows: "An act to enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes." For more, see The Civil Rights Act of 1964 informational page from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)